A decade ago, people in Ohio hadn’t heard much about fracking for natural gas in the state. But since then, the ups and downs of the gas industry have literally changed the rural landscape of eastern Ohio.
For some people that has meant new jobs or royalty payments from leasing their land. But the thousands of new well pads, the pipelines, compressor stations, and waste injection wells haven’t been welcomed by everyone. Citizens have filed thousands of complaints with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) about everything from gas leaks and crumbling roads to odors and noise they blame on energy development.
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A FRAUGHT RELATIONSHIP FROM THE START
Kerri and Jeff Bond’s house in the hills of Noble County, Ohio is nearly empty. An antique bed frame, old board games, a power washer are among hundreds of their possessions laid out in the garage, on the driveway, outside the barn ready to be auctioned off.
After forty years here, they feel they need to leave.
“It’s been difficult,” said Kerri Bond. “But today, I have just this peace, because we’re finally going to get out of here.”
Bond and her sister, Jodi Carter (pictured above) watch from the sidelines. Both are retired nurses, small women in floral dresses, with long greying hair and sad eyes. Carter tears up, as she waits for bidding to start on the property.
“This is where we’ve had all our family gatherings,” she said. “You know, the kids play in the woods, and the pond. It’s just…sad. It’s sad to lose it all to no control.”
The reason Bond says they need to leave is why many in the crowd here are intrigued by this auction: the lucrative underground mineral rights are for sale.
“We are the first people in Noble County to sell our working mineral rights,” Kerri Bond explained.
The natural gas industry has built up around them in recent years, including a well pad owned by Antero Resources Corporation, a quarter mile uphill from the house. Four lines extract gas from under the property, and the Bonds get paid monthly royalties. The last month’s royalty check was for $42,000.
So, why would someone forgo that kind of money, leave their farm, and their family? The Bonds say the gas industry that’s made them money, has also sullied their land, water and air, and made them distrust government regulators.
“It’s like fighting the most powerful people in the world and you still can’t win,” Jodi Carter said.
The Bonds’ trouble with the gas industry, and state regulators, started in 2011, before the shale boom had really gotten started in Noble County. They called the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which regulates the oil and gas industry, for help with a problem on their property.
“Before I called the ODNR, someone said to me, ‘Listen, if you call the ODNR, you’re gonna be sorry.’ And boy oh boy we were sorry,” Bond said.
The ODNR, which regulates oil and gas drilling, declined an interview about what happened. Records show that when ODNR came to investigate the Bonds’ complaint about a leaking oil tank, the agency issued a violation to the Bonds about a gas well on their property.
That was only the beginning of a fraught relationship between the Bond family and Ohio regulators.
Once the fracking boom took off, the family was forced by the state to sign a lease on their property, which is allowed under Ohio law.
A map by the non-profit FracTracker Alliance shows the Bonds’ rural home is now in the midst of 123 producing wells within five miles of their house, plus 6 compressor stations.
A FAMILY LOOKING FOR HELP
The Allegheny Front confirmed that the Bond family made numerous complaints to various state agencies, concerning well pad noise and bright nighttime lights, and that gas development was polluting the air and water, and harming their health.
“Every tree in the yard was dying, my cats died, my chickens died, we got sheep dying,” Kerri Bond claimed.
She complained to the state about her family getting odd rashes, headaches, and dizziness. She said her grandson developed a breathing problem.
Bond complained to the Ohio Department of Health, but their air testing found no radiological health hazard.
She complained to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
“They came in finally with repeated calling,” she said.
The Ohio EPA declined to comment, but sent their Investigative Report to The Allegheny Front. The report clarified that while the agency has no authority to regulate noise or light pollution, it tested air quality at the well pad, and on the Bonds’ property. Antero was also allowed to test at the same time.
The EPA found leaks from the well pad equipment of benzene and volatile organic compounds, but at levels allowed under Antero’s permit. Antero declined an interview, because the Bonds have a lawsuit pending against the company unrelated to the environmental claims.
The EPA found that the chemical leaks did not create a health hazard.
But growing body of evidence shows symptoms similar to the Bonds are associated with gas development.
“I really feel like we were like we were let down by everybody in Ohio,” Kerri Bond said.
Then, in January 2018, a pipeline exploded in Noble County, creating a fire on a hillside that the Bonds watched burning from their window.
“Jeff and I both looked at each other and we’re like who do we call? What do we do?,” Bond remembered. “You don’t know whether to pick up your stuff and run for your life.”
A year later, in January 2019, another pipeline exploded in Noble County. Two people, including a 12 year boy, were injured.
GAS DEVELOPMENT IS HELPING RURAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
County leaders do they hear some complaints about the industry.
“But I hear far more positives than negatives,” said Noble County Commissioner Brad Peoples.
Many landowners, including one school district, are thankful for the oil and gas development, according to Peoples, as are many business owners.
“My wife and I own a pizza shop and our business exploded with the oil and gas industry,” Peoples said. “So I wouldn’t have a bad thing to say about it.”
Noble County has gone from one hotel to four. They’re getting a Taco Bell. Even more important to Peoples, the community has an industry to build around.
“In a county that’s this small, if you kind of take up the cross for economic development without the oil and gas industry, what would you target?” Peoples asked.
A report by the industry group, Energy In Depth, finds that from 2011 to 2015, fracking companies in Ohio paid $43 million in property taxes to six Eastern Ohio counties, including Noble.
But Peoples said he’s heard about damage from the industry. “You talk to somebody that lives on a township road that connects to state roads where water trucks have traveled 18 times a day, and it’s destroyed roads,” he said.
THOUSANDS OF COMPLAINTS FROM OHIO RESIDENTS
The Allegheny Front analyzed complaints made to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources between 2009 and 2018, and found 2906 complaints were specifically about the oil and gas industry statewide.
“It has been a complete nightmare. The noise, the dirt, the traffic, the speeding, the trucks…the lights, the horns, the backup beepers, because it’s so close to my house.”
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Around 2012, one of the early boom years for Ohio’s Shale development, the number of complaints about the oil and gas industry peaked. By 2013, the ODNR started new categories of complaints about the industry that mirror the problems reported by Darla McConnell in Jefferson County.
“It has been a complete nightmare,” McConnell told The Allegheny Front. “The noise, the dirt, the traffic, the speeding, the trucks…the lights, the horns, the backup beepers, because it’s so close to my house.”
McConnell is one of more than 100 people The Allegheny Front called from ODNR complaint list.
Rules in Ohio say in rural areas like this, a well pad can be as close as 100 feet from a house. That’s less than a third of a football field. In Pennsylvania, its required to be five times further.
McConnell complained that ten to fifteen semi-trucks would sit idling on their rural road. Trucks knocked down her mailbox and ran her pregnant daughter’s car into a ditch.
“It’s been so bad, I wanted to put the house up for sale,” she said. “But you’re not going to be able to sell it, because nobody is going to want to live with this crap going on.”
The ODNR does not regulate traffic from the oil and gas industry. McConnell claims she couldn’t get any help.
“I have called so many different people, to try to get something done,” she said.
Of the 26 people The Allegheny Front interviewed, 18 said they were not satisfied with the state’s response to their complaints. They told stories about their water turning orange overnight, about piles of dirt being dumped in farm fields, about sulfur smells, and fish kills.
THE MESSAGE HASN’T GOTTEN TO SOME COLUMBUS LEADERS
“I have not received the first call about a concern in that area,” said Ohio Senator Steve Wilson, Chair of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee. “We would never not listen to something of that nature.”
He said since he has been chair of the energy committee starting in 2019, no one has proposed legislation to address complaints about the industry. He credits fracking for lowering the cost of energy in Ohio, and “at the end of the day that is what the consumers want,” Wilson said.
A BOOMING INDUSTRY
Long time Environmental Attorney Rick Sahli, based in Columbus, says Ohio’s government has not taken a strict stand to protect people from the oil and gas industry.
“The state’s doing nothing to deter them from misconduct.”
“There is no system anywhere in our government that can come to those peoples’ aid and it’s just wrong and it’s the reality,” Sahli said.
Sahli described drilling in Ohio as a mom and pop industry before hydraulic fracturing, but then “the first fracked well came in to Ohio’s eastern border in 2010, and all of it changed overnight,” he said.
Since 2010, more than 2,600 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the Utica and Marcellus shale in Ohio, according to the ODNR website. And federal energy statistics show that the state’s production of natural gas jumped too – from 78 million to nearly 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas between 2010 and 2016.
When state lawmakers created new fees on the oil and gas industry in 2010, they didn’t anticipate the windfall it would create. Revenue from the ODNR’s Oil and Gas Fund, which pays for the agency’s work regulating the industry, ballooned from $7.2 million in 2012, to $75.56 million in 2018.
As the industry grew, and the number of citizen complaints climbed in 2012 and 2013, the ODNR added field inspectors. But that number is back down again. Currently, the agency says there are 34 field inspectors, two more than in 2012.
Sahli claims regulations in Ohio have not kept pace to protect citizens. And, he said it’s not just how close well pads can be built to homes and schools. It’s what he calls a loophole in the disclosure of chemicals used in drilling to allow for trade secrets. And the lack of rules around waste from fracking.
Even when the EPA tests air quality at a well pad, like the Antero pad near the Bonds’ farm, and has the company fix chemical leaks, according to Sahli, it’s not good enough.
“The state’s doing nothing to deter them from misconduct,” Sahli said. “Coming in after the fact and re-soldering a joint that’s been leaking carcinogenic gas outside someone’s bathroom window isn’t the best way to attack a multi-national industry.”
The ODNR declined repeated requests for an interview for this story, but in an email statement said “the agency staff work every day on behalf of Ohioans to achieve a balance between protecting public health, safety, and the environment and ensuring the wise use of natural resources for the benefit of all.”
But for Kerri Bond and her family, the state didn’t do enough to protect them from the industry. They auctioned off their house, farm and mineral rights for more than a million dollars, and left Ohio.
Top Photo: Kerri Bond and Jodi Carter. Photo: Brian Peshek
Data analysis assistance provided by Susan Kirkman Zake, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University. Anna Huntsman of Kent State University and Jack Austin, intern from the University of California, Berkeley assisted in calling the complainants from the ODNR complaint log.
The story was corrected to reflect accurate revenue information for the Oil and Gas Fund.